Disagreeing to agree: On theological dialogue

A commenter recently asked me to clarify the stakes of a comment-thread debate, and ultimately all I could say was that I was advancing a consistent position, but it seemed to me that my interlocutors were constantly moving the goalposts so that my critique would not fully apply. This was emblematic of my interactions with confessional theologians at that time, particularly Barthians. They would agree that traditional articulations of (for instance) transcendence were problematic, but that only meant that we had to find the good transcendence! Often Karl Barth was held to be the source of the “good version,” which was so radically distinct from the pre-Barthian version as to be invulnerable to any conventional line of attack. It was almost a parody of Dan Barber’s critique of the quest for “good versions” — but with no attempt to articulate the concrete difference between the good and bad versions. If I did not concede that they indeed had a better version of what I was critiquing, the conversation would veer toward a consideration of how we could never truly have a conversation in the first place due to our incompatible axiomatic commitments. The whole thing became tiring, presumably from both ends — most of that traditional theology crowd does not show up in comment threads anymore (though comments are very inactive generally speaking).

Prior to the resort to incommensurable values, the exchange reminded me of a conversation I had with a Nazarene youth pastor. This was a “cool” youth pastor, someone I had gone to college with, someone who listened to Radiohead. I had just read Blue Like Jazz at my mom’s recommendation, and I shared that it made me viscerally angry, because it seemed to be nothing but an attempt to rationalize remaining affiliated with something that was hurting the author and other people around him. When pressed, I suggested that the youth pastor was doing the same thing. His objective function was to make young people feel just comfortable enough being affiliated with the church that they would maintain that affiliation through young adulthood and ultimately raise their children in the church — an institution that, I consistently argued, would hurt them as it had hurt me (and honestly, had hurt everyone in that room).

I was arguing, in short, that he had an ethical obligation to quit his job and abandon the institution he had chosen to serve, but he kept insisting that we were not in fundamental disagreement and could hash the issue out over a couple beers (because, yes, he was that kind of hipster Christian). At that point, simple disagreement would have been a relief — in fact, anger and outrage would have been a relief. After all, I was telling him his life’s calling was destructive and dangerous. In this situation, if he had veered toward a meta-conversation about how we come from such different starting points that we can’t even really have a conversation, it would have felt dishonest and even passive-aggressive. It would have been a coded way of saying that because I’m not a Christian, because I’m not saved, because I’m lost and mired down in the false wisdom of this world, I can’t understand the goodness they experience, or why it’s important to maintain the connection to the church even with all its faults.

The Radically Orthodox are more honest in their presentation, when they talk of secular philosophy as representing “fallen reason,” as a form of malign nihilism. Of course, their God is able to turn evil to good, and the same holds for the conceptual ingenuity of the nihilists. You can have all that is best in those philosophers you love, all that is compatible with Christ — and the theologian is offering you that opportunity. You can have your social critique, to the exact extent that it does not threaten the foundations of Christian dogma. You can have your quest for justice, which turns out to point toward a revamped version of Christendom.

You really can have it all! All the wisdom of this world, all the kingdoms of the world they will give you, if you will bow down and worship…. And if you won’t? Then you must have misunderstood, or be beyond saving. The resort to incommensurable axioms is a euphemism, a fake — because they can’t admit that you genuinely have a principled position of your own. They can’t do you the courtesy of directly disagreeing. At this point, one wishes for the straightforwardness of Satan, who responded to Jesus’ rejection of his offer by arranging to have him killed. The prince of this world did not realize that it can often be worse to kill them with kindness.

Social theory, race, and theology

A basic principle of the social sciences is that systemic effects have systemic causes. A classic example is Durkheim’s Suicide, where he argues that none of the individual reasons that people choose to take their own lives can account for the suicide rate in a given society — only an analysis of the general shape of those societies can explain a fundamentally social fact like the suicide rate.

There is a conservative form of faux-social science, of which David Brooks is probably the most self-conscious adherent. It tries to appear that it has tracked down systemic causes for the systemic effects it bemoans, but in reality it is still performing a fundamentally individualistic analysis. Social forces mutate into social trends, usually of a highly moralistic bent. Hence a Brooksian analysis of suicide rates might say that people are becoming less optimistic, more despairing, less serious about their duties to others, etc., etc.

This looks like a social cause because it’s a generalization about a lot of people. But if we ask David Brooks what caused people to become less optimistic, etc., in the last analysis all he can say is that a critical mass of people up and decided to stop being optimistic. And how do we solve this problem? Through moral exhortation that will make people up and decide to have hope again. Continue reading “Social theory, race, and theology”

Scattered thoughts on transubstantiation

Lately, for reasons that are unclear to me, my thoughts have turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and those thoughts have reached a form that is probably blog post-worthy — hence I share them with you now.

One very basic point we learn from Lindbeck is that when we are confronted with a doctrine, we should look to its consequences for behavior rather than focusing solely on the thoughts it prompts in someone’s head. With trinitarian doctrine, for instance, Lindbeck thinks we are dealing not with positive truth claims but with a kind of grammar that guides the way we concretely talk about God in trinitarian terms — i.e., the doctrine is not primarily about what we believe but what we say.

In the case of transubstantiation, the practical payoff is obvious in liturgical terms. If the bread really and irreversibly “becomes” Christ, then we need to take the utmost care of it, be very selective about who gets to participate in it, and carefully preserve any leftovers. In the last resort, it even becomes possible to envision the direct worship of the reserved Eucharistic host.

What is less clear is what we should do with the apparent consequences of the doctrine for the world outside the liturgical space. One implication, for instance, is that if a consecrated host is taken from the church setting and lost, then the real Body of Christ is just kind of sitting around, decomposing, being eaten by rats, etc. The immediate practical response to that implication is, once again, to carefully keep the host inside the liturgical context where it can be properly cared for.

Yet what do we do with the claim that the host still is Christ in the unfortunate event that it falls outside the liturgical circle? In some settings, people have drawn the conclusion that the power of Christ is available for abuse by those outside the church — witches or Jews, for instance. The seemingly narrow claim about the status of a particular wafer of unleavened bread then takes on much broader consequences for the relationship between the church and the world, which is envisioned as one of antagonism. We need to carefully contain the transubstantiated host within the liturgical context because it represents a power that outsiders want to seize for themselves.

Even without that explicitly polemical bent, however, the claim that the host really is Christ even outside the liturgical context represents a broad claim for the liturgy over against the world — it claims that the liturgy is more real than everyday reality. There’s already the seed of that assertion of superiority in the very demand that we recognize the little bit of bread, in defiance of all common sense, as the Real Presence of Christ. The claim that the liturgical act has irreversible consequences that hold in some sense outside the liturgical context then draws out the quasi-totalitarian assertion of liturgical superiority — which helps make sense of a world in which, for example, the Pope was claiming the right to choose kings and divvy up a previously unknown continent between rival powers.

I leave the consequences of this observation for the later Protestant responses to transubstantiation as an exercise for the reader.

When shame works and when it doesn’t 

A while back, I wrote an article on social media as a platform for passing judgment. Now I’m thinking about the same problem from another angle — basically, social media often feels a lot to me like my evangelical church did growing up. There’s the same attempt to micro-manage people’s emotional responses. There are declarations that if you like a certain pop culture product, there must be something deeply wrong with you. The parallels exist even down to the level of fine-grained tropes. For instance, one frequently sees declarations that caring about one thing rather than caring about another thing makes you a bad person. This echoes the structure of one of the most famous lines in contemporary evangelical preaching, coined by Tony Campolo: “A lot of your friends are going to hell, and you don’t give a shit. In fact, you probably care more that I just said the word ‘shit.'”

What unites all these tactics is the overall strategy of shaming. It may seem counterintutive to build community bonds through shaming, but really it’s genius — if the community has an inside track on what’s wrong with you, they can also plausibly claim privileged access to the solution. Wrapping up a certain standard into someone’s deep emotional responses, which sustained shaming does, installs that standard as authoritative in a very deep way.

Continue reading “When shame works and when it doesn’t “

A brief thought on Aulén’s atonement typology

I’ve had occasion to return to the topic of atonement, and specifically Aulén lately, and a thought occurred to me: Aulén’s typology of the three main atonement theories is strikingly similar to the commonplace typology of philosophical ethics.

The “Christus Victor” or “ransom” theory is utilitarian — God gets the job done elegantly, with some ethically questionable actions, to bring about the greatest possible benefit to humanity.

Anselm’s theory (both in reality and in Aulén’s reading, a somewhat rare overlap) would be the deontological theory where the overriding priority is making sure that all the rules are followed to the letter.

Finally, the moral influence theory (which Aulén wrongly attributes to Abelard) is a virtue ethics approach where Jesus’s main contribution is just to be the amazingly excellent person he is.

In short, it’s questionable typologies all the way down.

On the Abortion Trump Card

A lot has been written about evangelical support for Trump, including this excellent piece by Hollis Phelps. I share Phelps’s cynical view of the leadership, but for many everyday evangelicals, the picture is not so stark. They are not political nihilists seeking power and recognition for themselves, at least not primarily, and they do not have elaborate theories of how Trump is a modern-day Cyrus annointed by God to bring the chosen people to the promised land. Rather, for most of them, I imagine that what led them to hold their nose and vote for a man like Trump is the same thing that leads them to vote for Republicans every time: abortion.

That is the moral trump card, and now that it has literally led to Trump, I think it’s past time to ask whether it is really a moral trump card at all, or whether it’s just a convenient excuse to do what feels comfortable and familiar.

I will concede that the fetus is alive and is a member of the human species biologically. I don’t want to debate “when life begins” — it seems indisputable that some kind of biological life is beginning at conception. But does a life begin then? Does the fetus begin to live its life from the moment it is conceived? Is it the kind of being that even has a life yet?

If that question seems abstract, I’ll give an example of the kind of biologically human entity that has a life: a Latina teenager who is allowed to stay in the United States under Obama’s DACA program. It is stated in Trump’s plan for his first 100 days that he will summarily end that program, and that will ruin lives. This Latina teenager will be uprooted — whether immediately or over a grace period — from the life she knows in the US and sent to a place she likely has no memory of. All the hopes and dreams she has for her life here will be radically over, and she will have to start over from scratch. Maybe she will have relatives there to take care of her, and maybe her life will somehow be even better. But the plan does not take any of those contingencies into account — she’s here illegally and needs to be gone.

This policy shift will not directly kill her — though again, the policy doesn’t evince any actual concern for whether she lives or dies once she’s out of the country — but it will definitely uproot and destroy everything she has known as her life. And to support Trump on pro-life grounds is effectively to say that her life, which is actually unfolding, which she is currently experiencing, which she had planned and dreamed and hoped for, is worth less than the purely biological life of someone who hasn’t even been born yet. Is this the moral high ground, or a sick parody of moral deliberation?

Worse: the certainty that her life will be ruined is less important than the outside chance that a future Supreme Court justice will tip the balance in favor of someone who hasn’t been born yet, who has never yet experienced or thought or loved or hoped. Because the irony is that there have been Republican majorities on the Supreme Court more often than not in the time since Roe v. Wade, and yet they somehow never got around to doing what is ostensibly the most important thing.

And why should they? As soon as it’s repealed, suddenly the pro-life movement is no longer a monolithic voting bloc and can start considering other options. They have their locked-in votes from the evangelicals as long as Roe v. Wade stands, and they can get away with anything else they want to do — including nominating a man who is a virtual embodiment of everything that Christians supposedly oppose, and who barely bothers to give lip service to the pro-life position.

It should be a rule of thumb: when someone presents you with an absolute, non-negotiable moral trump card, they are not appealing to your moral sense. They are trying to blind it. They are trying to fool and manipulate you. And evangelicals have let themselves be fooled and manipulated for over 40 years.

Introduction: God and Difference Book Event

Trinitarian theology has lost its way. It has become – as I demonstrate in this book – a way to enjoin practices of sacrifice and submission under the banner of countering the rapaciousness of modern subjectivity.

The problem with Christian theological accounts of the Trinity is not, Tonstad argues, that they have become infected by the fallen or secular logics of gender inequality and hierarchy. The logics of heterosexism and heteronormativity are, in fact, deeply theological, and cannot be unsettled simply by the demand that they be made flexible enough to welcome queer people in. What is necessary instead is a radical remaking of the logic of trinitarian procession, moving away from the heterosexual logic of penetration, according to which relationships move according to the thrusting logics of space-making, activity and receptivity, towards the clitoral logic of surface touch, intensification, and non-sacrificial encounter. Continue reading “Introduction: God and Difference Book Event”